In 2019, Dante Lucchesi and his Champs Sports Grill in State College, Pennsylvania, were on a roll.
The 400-seat restaurant his father opened in 1986 was full every weekend when Penn State University’s powerhouse football team took the field.
The downtown location he added in 2017, with roughly twice the capacity and just over a block from campus, was the runner-up in Barstool Sports’ Best College Bar contest and host to a surprise Jonas Brothers concert featured on the Today Show.
But now, like thousands of local business owners in university towns across the country, Lucchesi faces the unthinkable: A year of college football wiped off the calendar because of a pandemic that has torpedoed the economy and may rewrite the rules for mass public gatherings.
On seven or eight weekends each fall, thousands of fans and alumni pour into State College, a town of fewer than 45,000, to watch the Nittany Lions football team. In a region that saw no economic growth in 2018, the last year for which local-level data is available, football weekends are vital.
“I don’t have the answers. I’m not going to pretend like I do,” said Lucchesi. “My business hinges on this, on the football season and everything.”
Seven hundred miles south in Athens, Georgia, Peter Dale is anxiously awaiting word on season plans for the Sugar Bowl-winning University of Georgia and what it might mean for his three restaurants – the National, Seabear and Maepole.
“People are just now starting to think about what are some of the options, but none of them are very good,” he said.
David Bradley, head of the local chamber of commerce, estimated 220,000 out-of-towners descended on Athens – nearly twice the city’s population – for the Bull Dogs’ nail-biting win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last September.
“For home games, you’re probably talking about a $3 to $4 million economic impact into the community, on a positive side when you’ve got games and on the negative side when you don’t,” Bradley said. “So it’s a really big deal.”
‘THE UNFORTUNATE REALITY’
Like major professional leagues, college programs are weighing options for salvaging a season, which typically kicks off in earnest in September. Possibilities include requiring fans to space out in stadiums, holding games without spectators, even postponing the season until the spring.
In many cases, the football season decision hinges on whether campuses reopen to students. The University of Michigan, a Penn State rival in the Big 10 Conference, will not field a team if students did not return to campus in the fall, its president told the Wall Street Journal.
There is uncertainty about when college football will be back.
The NCAA has said student-athletes can resume voluntary activities on campus as early as June 1, if schools and local laws do not prohibit them. And this week, college football officials and TV networks extended a June 1 target for determining the season’s early game times.
Asked about the upcoming season, Penn State Athletics said it would continue “planning for various scenarios.” Georgia’s athletics director declined to comment on contingency plans for the season.
For the big programs, football generates the lion’s share of athletic revenues, and any disruption will feed through university budgets and local economies where the schools are major employers.
More than $100 million of the Penn State athletics department’s $164.5 million operating revenue came from football during the 2018-2019 fiscal year, according to its annual NCAA financial report. Nearly $37 million came from ticket sales for games at the 106,000-seat Beaver Stadium.
In Georgia it is even bigger, with the grid iron program accounting for $123 million out of total sports revenue of $174 million. Home game ticket sales totaled $34.6 million.
The budget pressures from a canceled season will force tough decisions about other programs that count on a slice of the football pie, said Ken Rodgers, a director at S&P. “That’s sort of the unfortunate reality.”
Even pushing the football season to the spring comes with challenges: After losing the end of the lucrative basketball season in March, many colleges and universities will be reluctant to trample on the basketball schedule this season.
‘A SOCIAL RITUAL’
For the people who measure their lives in first downs, the uncertainty is a hard pill to swallow.
“I wouldn’t even know what Penn State would be like without a football season,” said rising Penn State University senior Emily Sensale, a Champs waitress who has been attending games since she was 13.
“As much as I obviously, selfishly want the 110,000 people in the stadium,” said Sensale, “I just personally don’t know how it would affect people’s safety.”
Brett Bawcum, acting director of Georgia’s Redcoat marching band, said the football season is an experience that would be difficult to replace for the roughly 430 students under his leadership, who brought Sanford Stadium to its feet with renditions of “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Don’t Stop Believing” last year.
“Honestly it’s as deep of a social ritual as you will find anywhere,” said Bawcum.
“There are lives that revolve around it.”